Opera Globalicorum – Tagore and Contemporary Bengal – PART 1
This Two part Essay takes up the subject of relevance of Tagore in Contemporary Bengal. Part 1 sets forth as how since 1960s, Bengali thinkers started to ponder the relevance of him and the essay continues in outlining the same till date in the backdrop of other issues, other concerns.
Edited excerpt from CALCUTTA, CULTURE CLAIRVOYANCE: TAGORE AND GLOBALIZATION OF BENGAL – Book XIII of the An Intimate History of Bengal (PROJECT AIHB).
The full text is available here at http://www.syhlleti.org/aihb/bengal16.htm. This was written and released in May 2007.
Since 1960s, the frontline literary artists of Bengal started to ponder over the relevance of Tagore in future. For some, this thought was nothing short of a blasphemy and the opposition came most from the Institutional Tagore-scholars. Buddhadev, while writing about the imitations and imitators of Tagore gave a honourable coup-de-grace – ‘Having sacrificed themselves in the flaming sun (Rabi-tap), they have provided next generation with a necessary and useful warning‘.These imitations were nothing unique for Tagore or for Bengal. As soon as flame of creativity shines stronger, lesser lights tend to borrow.
However, in case of Tagore it was the flame of a true genius, a genius which finally consumed the bearer of the gift and also the lesser gifted ones who came in close quarters, personally or institutionally. At certain point in the literary history of Bengal, Tagore‘s work approached the applicability of that of Homer as regarded by the classical Greeks that all wisdom can be found in Homer. As logical mind as that of Greeks could have thought that Homer has something for everything. Homeric odes were sung and consumed not as an artistic product alone but as narrating process of knowledge, wisdom and many other desirable things which we don’t demand from literature anymore now. However, Homer became part and parcel of the Greek world and wherever Greeks went they carried their Homer. At the matured period of classical Greece in 4th century BCE, Homer was synonymous with the idea that was called Greece. The Bengali colonists did the same as late as 1980s with sincerity and conviction. Later, it became a form of habit, having little to do with any inner conviction or internalization or even identification.
The Artistic Crucible:
His syncretism could seamlessly travel from the domains of Chandalika (Buddhist) to Bhanusingha (Vaishnav Lyrical poetry) and Bramho-sangeet (the monotheism). It is interesting to note that he had reconciled and could persuade us through the artistic instrument of willing-suspension-of-disbelief of the fundamentally different philosophical ramifications underlying these traditions. This power of persuasion has been the most profound aspect of the Tagore the person or Tagore as an artist. If he were born in other cultural space-time, he would have done the same synthetic persuasion. His songs, a part of his short stories and a selected part of his poetry symbolize this power of persuasion at the deepest level. Aided by a remarkable gift on language, he became the architect-builder and craftsman of Bengali language. It is a logical confirmation that today, after a century after he wrote those works, his works of persuasion at the deepest level never ceases to fascinate us.
However, as soon as we study the institution Tagore where he was a political activist, a strategist in terms of practical methods of swaraj, a patriot or nationalist, builder of institution and as soon as he took his greatest gift as an aid of persuasion in these areas, we could always find almost exactly opposite results. This remains at the root of his failure as a novelist, as an artist who failed to mirror the agony of his time and for some Western critics, – a boudoir poet.
This action-reaction sequence has an interesting lesson: his syncretism as an artist or an institution has a more lasting appeal than one of the artistic hallmarks of portraying the agony of the age. In this way, the characters of his novels have little life, they raise no singularities on existential issues, they speak no truth which only a novel can utter and they smell too much of design and craftsmanship and have no element of fantastic in them.
On the other hand, in his short stories, he was guided by his own spirit and his conscious and unconscious efforts gave birth to certain characters and sequences that are unique in Bengali literature.They represent what Tagore the artist always tried and succeeded and Tagore the institution has failed most often: to re-present the eternal human dilemma.
Buddhadev has drawn our attention to the historical setting of Tagore‘s mind while being active as an artist. He argues that in his artistic geography, he was citizen of another historical time. This capacity remains his greatest strength and greatest weakness, depending on the form of his art and what his readers or critics are looking for. The fault was not Tagore‘s, nor Tagore was ignorant of the complaints of his readers. Being acutely self-aware, he was sensitive to his relevance also for the next generations to come. To the language, to the landscape and to the mind of Bengal, he gave the idea and hope that the universe reflects here too, in spite of our repeated folly of spinning a web of homilies and familiarity. If the entire landmass of Bengal in some geological aeon goes under the sea or some catastrophe destroys the land and the people altogether, if entire Bengali language is forgotten, still it is possible to convey the essence of the land and its people from his work.
His life as a creative artist was an intense laser beam which opened a new channel between the retina of the eye and the mind‘s eye and once that‘s opened, the language and the meaning never remained the same. Also, this new faculty, actually a miracle, in course of time became something so natural that it has been taken for granted. We will focus our discussion on the relationship between the Bengal landscape and Tagore as a creative artist. He has been an intimate artist of Bengal and instead of going into the bemoaning discussion as why or why not young people read him today, we would discuss some of the current trends having influence on this landscape, to which the greatest poet of the post-Tagore generation would like to have eternal return.
Globalization and Landscape of Bengal:
The core competence of Bengal, in spite of all complex rhetoric and marketing communications remains her land, her geography and her fields. Modern technology, in spite of its formidable power cannot add another Bengal in the globe although it can destroy it in a violent frenzy or through slow degeneration. Since the age of empires in India, fertility of Bengal‘s land has been the major agenda in the policy of conquest, colonization, settlement or exit. This Bengal includes East and West Bengal alike. Forever washed in the water of the sky and water of the innumerable of large and small rivers, biological sustenance was never a problem in the land. If it was, it was always the greed or the inefficiency of the people who controlled the generation or distribution of the produce. It is a miracle that for last two hundred years or so, this landscape could maintain a low-cost, abundant and healthy supply of elements required for biological sustenance. There is a major debate raging now in the land as to whether using the farmland for industrial expansion will bring public good or not. This debate is important and more important is to define the co-ordinate of the participant in order to escape the follies of sentimentalism and conditioned response so common in the land today. Another interesting experiment is to imagine Tagore as a participant in this debate, separately as an artist and an individual and then trace his reaction. This exercise would also bring an important aspect on the larger theme – Tagore in the Globalized Bengal.
Nirad C Chaudhri had informed us, while rating five of the greatest Bengalis, certain yardsticks and strangely, he argues that all of them share a trait common – they are all un-Bengali. We may also argue that the first criterion of attaining greatness for a Bengali is to shed his Bengali conditioning. This is applicable in a general way, said long ago by the Master of Galilee – A prophet is seldom respected in his homeland. After a continuous struggle with the position of myself as a student of the cultural history of Bengal, I had undergone a process of evolution which has left me with few options lately. I would briefly narrate this process of evolution. My first position was that of intense identification, i.e. an insider. In this position, the greatest danger is that of being sucked into the staid pool of chandimantap culture of Bengal which tends to make one critical about everything else except that of one‘s own belief systems and cultural make-up.
Gandhi and Tagore: Clash of Ideas
Tagore – the aristocrat by birth and aristocrat by temperament had to deal with this mass of people all through his life and interaction in Bengal. His aristocracy has the characteristics of ownership and that is the reason why he could call any human product as his own irrespective of its origin in time and geography. Amarty Sen, in his essay on Gandhi and Tagore in The Argumentative Indian has brought this feature of Tagore‘s attitude that permeate his views on nationalism, civilization conflict and cultural exchanges.
It is no wonder that Gandhi and Tagore would have to have a radical disagreement over the contribution of Western Civilization in view of the contemporary situation of India under the colonial rule or mis-rule of the English – one of the pre-eminent representatives of the European Civilization. For Gandhi as a mass-leader and that too of the mass of India, it was politically and temperamentally impossible to be aware of the distinction between the European Civilization and the English administrators of India, petty or big. Tagore always did. He gave a very practical advice to his countrymen that there is a distinction and that distinction is fundamental, that lies between the English spirit and the behaviour and policy of English colonists in India. Applying this concept with regards to India, he grasped the highly significant aspect of contemporary Indian attitude to India‘s ancient past. In one of his essays, he mocks the attitude of some of the elites proclaiming the so-called Aryan heritage mixed-up with a hotchpotch of spirituality, science, and technology and we-have-done-it-all-prehistorically. It was the reaction to this attitude that James Mill had to observe that any Hindu pundit would come in contact with modern scientific and technological ideas and immediately find those in their own books. I have heard this hotchpotch and this variation of themes so many times from many educated and respectable people that I wonder how heroic was for him to escape those follies.
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